Responding to the rescue - Psalm 116
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It's often said that suffering either draws people closer to God, or drives them further away. Someone drawn to God through suffering is Joni Erickson Tada. Aged 16 she dived into a local swimming place and broke her neck, rendering her paralysed from the neck down ever since. And that ultimately brought her to faith. Later she wrote: "My accident was not a punishment... Only God knows why I was paralysed... But if I was still on my feet, it's hard to say how things would have gone. I probably would have drifted through life... dissatisfied and disillusioned. I wouldn't change my life for anything... God doesn't give such attention to everyone and intervene that way in their lives. He allows most people to go right on in their own ways... even though he knows they are ultimately destroying their lives, health and happiness. I'm really thankful he did something to get my attention and change me." Contrast that with what George Bernard Shaw wrote: "How are atheists produced?" he asked. "In probably nine times out of ten, something like this happens: A beloved wife, or husband, or child or sweetheart is gnawed to death by cancer, struck dumb by apoplexy or strangled by diphtheria, and the on looker, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such cruelty, indignantly repudiates his faith in the divine monster and he becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical, but fiercely and actively hostile to religion."
Now in the light of the tragic events in London on Thursday, one of the big questions everyone will be asking is why? Why has this happened? And how will we respond? And they are frequently the questions we ask in such situations in life whenever we face difficulties and pain. But very often it's times like these that reveal where we are truly building our lives. Do we find ourselves turning away from the only one who can give us help, or to him? Because the temptation is to feel bitter and angry towards God. Certainly many of us will have felt that temptation in the immediate aftermath of some pain or suffering. "Why have you done this, God? Did I deserve this? Why me?" And it can have that effect on us of making us turn away from God and not trusting him in the darkest times of life. But there's another reaction in testing times. And that is to trust God despite our anger and bitterness. Will we take such thoughts to God, to the only One who can help us in such dark times? Will we fling ourselves on him or turn and trust ourselves? Because it's not the suffering itself which affects our attitude to God, but how we respond to the suffering.
And it's very fitting that we should be looking at a psalm this morning which sees a man who is in very great suffering. For Psalm 116 is written by an anonymous author after he'd been rescued from the most terrible suffering. He's was at death's door, and yet in his distress he cried out to the Lord and the Lord rescued him. Now it's important to see that this psalm will not give us easy answers. It will not answer our deepest questions of why we have to endure such suffering and pain. But it will point to our only hope in such times and urge us to trust the only one who can help. And in times of trouble what we most need is not trite answers, but to know that God is totally trustworthy and is there with us in our pain. In short Psalm 116 is an example of how to relate to God when life is hard and painful, not to make us feel guilty for our short comings in times of pain, but to point us to our only hope and comfort. So let's turn to this man's poem as he gives us his personal testimony of what happened to him and how he coped in the most terrible of times. And we'll see three things:
1) A Desperate Situation (Vv 1-3)
2) A Divine Rescue (Vv 4-11)
3) A Devoted Life (Vv 12-19)
1) A Desperate Situation (Vv 1-3)
So first then, he tells us about a desperate situation in verses 1-3: "I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow." Now clearly this was a person in desperate need. He says that the cords of death entangled him, the anguish of the grave came upon him; he felt overwhelmed by trouble ad sorrow. It sounds like a horrible nightmare where you dream you are drowning or you are trapped in a life threatening situation. But this man could not wake up and realise it was a dream, because for him it was reality. Death's icy grip was around his throat. It was as if the walls of hell itself were closing in on him. Now we're not told what this mortal peril was, but clearly he thought his time was up. Perhaps it was an illness; or perhaps it was something others had done to him. He calls all men liars in verse 11, so maybe he'd been trapped. Or maybe it was his own fault, as verse 6 suggests. The words there translated "simple hearted" speak of folly and ignorance. Maybe this man walked into a trap unawares. Whatever it was he was in a terrible position. He was staring death in the face.
Now I guess very few of us have been in this situation literally, where we have been very close to death. Some of us will have been, and you will know the reality of these verses. But many more of us will know the truth of feeling totally overwhelmed and by trouble or sorrow. It has felt like we're being completely submerged by the difficulty of a particular situation. We feel utterly helpless and lost. There is nothing we can do, whether something has happened to us or to someone we love. And we need to see that this feeling of utter helplessness is not something that comes about through lack of faith or weakness on our part. It is rather a tragic fact of a world where sin and sickness and death have entered.
And that points us to a far deeper helplessness that each one of us are in. And that is the fact that we are spiritually speaking in a situation very similar to this psalmist. For we human beings have turned away from our maker and King to live life our way. And the result is slavery to sin, to a life which leads not to God but away from him. And what awaits us is the grave, not just physically but spiritually as well, to be separated from God for ever, all because our own rebellion against God. So spiritually speaking the cords of death are around our throats. We are helpless and totally overwhelmed by our sin. And so whilst many of us feel overwhelmed in times of great need and suffering, yet the Bible uses such language to remind all of us our great need spiritually too. Whether we admit it or not, we're all in a desperate situation.
2) A Divine Rescue (Vv 4-11)
So what is needed in such times? Do we just resign ourselves to our plight and plunge ourselves ever deeper into self pity and despair? Well no, because a desperate situation leads secondly to a divine rescue. And that is what this writer experienced! So verse 4: "Then I called on the name of the LORD: 'O LORD, save me!'" The writer calls out for help from his desperate situation. And what happens? Verse 6: "The LORD protects the simple-hearted; when I was in great need, he saved me. Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling." Now we are not sure how the Lord rescued this man. But we can be sure he did rescue him. He lived to tell the tale, and the writer believes it is all down to God's loving rescue. God took the initiative. You, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death. He saved me, he says, from the very jaws of death. Now what was it then that gave this writer confidence that God would rescue him from this situation? How could he be sure God would step in to save him? Well the writer did two things, two things you and I need to do in tough times:
a) He looked back to God's past character- First he looked back to God's past character. Have a look at verse 5: "The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The LORD protects the simple-hearted." The writer knew what God was like. He knew that God was gracious and righteous. That he's full of compassion. That he protects the humble and simple hearted. And how did he know that? Because that was what God had revealed about himself throughout Israel's history. The writer knew it from reading his Bible. And the supreme revelation of God's character and acts up until the writer's time had been at the time of the Exodus, when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt. And it was at that point that God revealed his name to be "Yahweh", which means something like the God who always is, the God who is totally trustworthy and unchanging. And in our translations, wherever you see the word "LORD" in capitals then it means God's self- revealed name of Yahweh. And the name of God always reveals his character. To the Jews it summed up all that God is and does. He is the promise keeping God who is always there for his people. And then later on after the Exodus from Egypt, God revealed more about his character to Moses in Exodus 34. He said that he is: "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulnessCan you see the similarities with this psalm? What is it that God revealed about himself in Exodus 34? That he's compassionate and gracious, abounding in love! What does the psalmist remind everyone about God's character here in Psalm 116 v 5? That God, the LORD, the promise keeping God, is "gracious and righteous, and full of compassion." And interestingly, the word the psalmist uses for God seventeen times in this psalm is LORD in capital letters, meaning Yahweh, the very name God revealed about himself in Exodus. So it's as if this writer is saying: "Yes, I can have complete confidence in my God because the God who rescued the people in Egypt, the God who kept his promise there and who is gracious and compassionate, is the very same God I trust in. He's not changed, he's not altered. This is the God I trust. And so I can have absolute confidence he will rescue me. Because I'm trusting in his unchanging character." He's looks back, you see, to that past rescue and revelation of God's character in Exodus, and says "I'm trusting that same unchanging God today!"
Now surely one of the greatest comforts to us in difficult times would be a deeper understanding of the character and nature of God. We need to see that God is a God who never goes back on his promises, that he is gracious and compassionate and that his love for his people is unchanging. And most importantly that he is able to bring us through the difficulty, that nothing is outside of his control. Surely that is one of the reasons why the writer pens the psalm. He wants us to see how great God is. And when the people of God do go through tough times, then often their testimony is that the thing that kept them going was their knowledge of God- It's not that we are guaranteed an easy ride. But we can be confident that God is with us and has not let the reins of our lives go, even though it may feel things are out of control.
Consider someone like Chrysostom. Chrysostom was a great preacher who stood up for Christ and his gospel. One time he was brought before the Roman Emperor and threatened with exile unless he stopped being a Christian. To this threat, Chrysostom replied: "You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father's house." "Then I will kill you," replied the Emperor. "You cannot," replied Chrysostom, "since my life is hidden with Christ in God." "Then I will take away your treasures." "You cannot for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there." "Then I will drive you away from every person in the world, and you shall have no friend left." "No, you cannot. For I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. For there is nothing you can do to harm me." What was it that gave both Chrysostom and the psalmist confidence of a final rescue, even if it meant death in this world? It was God's unchanging character. And that can be our assurance too.
b) He looked up for God's present rescue- But notice a second thing that the writer did in his need. He looked up for God's present rescue. In other words, looking back to see God's past character, that God is compassionate and gracious, then now he simply flings himself on the mercy of God. He looks up to God for rescue And we see this in verse 10, which at first is a little confusing. So just what does the writer mean when he says: "I believed; therefore I said, 'I am greatly afflicted.'" Well what he is saying is that his belief and trust in God made him cry out to God and admit his need of rescue and his pain. I believed, he said. I did trust God. Therefore I cried out to him for salvation. You see it is not ungodly or weak or sinful to cry out to God for help. In fact the very cry of help to God shows that we do trust him. It's the person who never cries for help, who never pleads to God for assistance that is in the greatest danger. Rather this psalmist showed his faith by crying out to God and saying: "God I'm afflicted. I need your help! I need you right now!" This psalmist knew that the only place he could look for help was God himself. And that's what he did. And actually it is when our faith is tested that it is revealed for what it is. The most difficult times of life force us to trust God more and not ourselves. So in tough times, faith cannot be theoretical can it! It must be put into action, because to be quite frank where else can we turn?
Let me show you what I mean by telling you about an office block in America. It was a brand new state of the art office block and the very top office block had walls which were made of pure glass from floor to ceiling. Well the girls who worked in those offices were very worried about this. They were sure that the glass was not safe. They thought that if you tripped and fell into the glass, you'd go straight through and fall to the bottom, which was a very long way down. In fact, they were so worried about this, that they went on strike and refused to work. Well their managers could do nothing to convince them to go back to work, so they called the engineer who had designed the building. He came up to the top floor and found the girls, arms folded, refusing to work, with their managers looking exasperated. So the engineer assessed the situation for a moment. And then he walked right to he back of the offices and then ran at full pelt and hurled himself shoulder first at the window. What happened? He just bounced off, brushed himself down, and walked off. Because his point had been made. Nothing could break that glass. It was perfectly trustworthy. But it was only by trusting it with his life that the engineer was able to prove it was sound.
And it's when we fling ourselves on God's mercy and into his loving hands that we show ourselves to have a faith that works. For true faith is not theoretical but is put into practice and is seen to be true in the most testing of times. And if you are going through the mill at the moment, then be assured, as this writer found, that God is totally trustworthy. He doesn't promise necessarily to take away the problems, but he does promise to be there with us in the difficulties. In that sense he is our rescuer.
And we need to see that this divine rescue is not just for the tough times of life. Because it reminds too that God is able to rescue us from that most terrible of situations which is our sin. The rescue that God has provided in Jesus Christ is totally sufficient for our complete forgiveness and new life. For God is seen to be gracious and compassionate most fully in the cross of Christ, where Jesus died in our place. So he was afflicted for us. He bore our penalty. The cords of death wrapped themselves around his throat so that we might not endure the wrath of God for our sin. And so we can say with the psalmist: "Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you." We can receive God's rescue in the ultimate sense when we admit our need and trust the rescue of Jesus for us on the cross. And our rescue from sin is based on the same character of God. He is gracious and compassionate. And the psalmist asks us very simply if we will trust him. Have we trusted him to rescue us from our sin? Or are we still trusting ourselves? For if so then cords of spiritual death are still around our throats. And will we trust him in the ups and downs of life. Because the psalmist is convinced that only this God can rescue us.
3) A Devoted Life (Vv 12-19)
But the writer isn't quite finished yet, as he tells us thirdly about the devoted life. And this life is actually summed up by the very first words of the psalm. Verse 1: "I love the Lord." That is actually what the psalmist's life is all about now he has received this divine rescue from a desperate situation. All he can do know is express his total love for the Lord. "I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live." And we need to ask ourselves if that is our response? Can you honestly say that you love the Lord? If you have received that rescue for yourself, that joy of knowing sins forgiven, the comfort of knowing that God is with you even in the very darkest times of distress and doubt, do you love him? Well if so, then your and my life will be marked by the resolutions the psalmist makes in these final verses of the psalm. Because he asks the question in verse 12: "How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?" Well the answer is that he can never repay the Lord. But his life from now on will be one of loving devotion to his Lord and Saviour. So what will that mean?
a) Total Dependence- First, he says, my life will be marked by total dependence. Verse 13: "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD." He's going to call on the name of the Lord. But that's odd because he's already told us back in verse 4 that he called on the name of the Lord for rescue. Ah, yes, he says, and that's my point. Living in the light of the rescue means you are now totally dependant on the Lord for all things. So see what he says in verse 2: "Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live." Not one of us can continue the Christian life without the grace of God. And it's especially in tough times that we must be totally dependent on him and call on him.
b) Total Commitment- Second says our writer, my life is now marked by total commitment. Verse 16: "O LORD, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, the son of your maidservant; you have freed me from my chains." Becoming a Christian means being set free to serve a new master. And I for one, says our writer, am going to give my Lord total commitment. For I love him, and he rescued me! What more could I possibly do?
c) Total Proclamation- And then thirdly, he says, my life will be marked by total proclamation. He wants to tell everyone about God's loving rescue of him! So verse 18: "I will fulfil my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the LORD in your midst, O Jerusalem. Praise the LORD." He's going to go to the Temple and tell all the people how good God has been to him. And when you have received such a wonderful rescue, what could possibly hold you back from proclaiming it to the world. Surely not fear of what people will say, surely not embarrassment. Nothing could be more natural for this person then to tell everyone what God had done for him.
You see those are the marks of someone who has been rescued. They are marked by total dependence on God, total commitment to God, total proclamation about God. That is what it means to love the Lord. For love, as Jesus says, is seen in obeying his words. And when you know from what you have been rescued, then you are all the more grateful to the rescuer. And your life will never the same again. And if you are a professing Christian here today trusting in the death of Jesus for you, then are you devoted in this way? Is your Christian life marked by these three qualities of devoted love to your Saviour, to total dependence, total commitment and total proclamation? If not, then this psalmist stands as a model to us of what it means to live life as a rescued person, serving the Lord we love, not through guilt or fear, but simply because we love him.
Well sadly in our world, there will always be stories of atrocities and loss of life, and it's deeply saddening every time. And in our own lives there will always be times of difficulty and pain. And such suffering will cause us either to turn away from him or to fling ourselves on God, to know that there is hope and rescue in the very deepest sense. And that is what Joni Erickson Tada has come to know so wonderfully in her life. After that accident in 1967, she has struggled with the unfathomable ways of God in her life, and yet she has come to a point where she trusts God intimately even though she doesn't know all the answers. She writes: "Before my accident, my questions had always been: 'How will God fit into this situation, how will he affect my dating, my career plans, the things I enjoy?' [After the accident] all those options were gone. It was me, just a helpless body, and God. I had no other identity but God, and gradually he became enough. I became overwhelmed with the phenomenon of the personal God, who created the universe, living in my life. He would make me attractive and worthwhileMaybe God's gift to me is my dependence on him. I will never reach the place where I am self sufficient, where God is crowded out of my life. I am aware of his grace to me every moment."
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